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The Burden of Proof: How Atheism Has Adopted a Worldview That Science Never Intended

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"The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books---a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects."
-- Albert Einstein

"To simply dismiss the concept of God as being unscientific is to violate the very objectivity of science itself."
--Werner Van Braun

Over the last six or seven centuries, western science has worked miracles -- no play on words intended. The light that science has shed on the mechanics of our universe, the advancements in medicine that have been achieved, and the phenomenal innovations of technology have literally shaped every aspect of our modern world. And so it is easy to see why faith, whose blindest adherents have caused a great deal of suffering over the last two thousand years, is often questioned by those who hold science in its due regard.

Of the hundreds of comments on the fallibility of religion that my last article on Huffington Post garnered, most of them fall into three categories: (1) Organized religion has done terrible things. (2) There is no value in religion (or for that matter in spirituality) other than fulfilling some primal biological need or superstitious fear. (3) There is nothing "provable" about religion, and until something has been proven, it is wrong, or stupid, or narrow-minded (insert adjective here) to believe in it.

This article is not a response to the many atheists who simply do not believe in God and leave it at that, it is a direct response to these three common points.

You won't get an argument from me on the fact that terrible things have been done in the name of religion. From the historical horrors of the inquisition to the systemic abuse scandals that have shaken religious institutions to their core, there are many religious structures that have a lot to answer for. There is also -- particularly in the Abrahamic faiths -- an inflexibility and resistance to reform. One would hope that it wouldn't even be necessary to debate whether the universe is more than 5,000 years old at this point, or whether people who love a member of the same sex are entitled to fair treatment.

As far as the value of religion, I will only touch on this briefly. I assume that most atheists, who are generally intelligent people, are smart enough to realize that standing from the sidelines and claiming that there is no value in something that they do not practice themselves is not a defensible position. Atheists obviously don't know the value of spiritual practice, because they don't experience its value. Its a bit like someone who has sat idle in front of a computer for most of their lives telling a soccer player that there's no value in soccer. Coming from a non-soccer player, the statement means absolutely nothing. There are 4 billion+ people in this world who practice some form of religion. They are not all -- every single one of them -- enslaved by fear or ignorance as some atheists seem to imply. Clearly many of them are getting some personal value out of it.

Of course there are those atheists who have seen the less savory effects of organized religion first hand, on their families and friends. Perhaps their atheism is a response to this. While this very personal choice to be atheist is understandable, care has to be taken when judging all religions and all religious people based on their own bad experiences. There are thousands of spiritual faiths in this world. There are vast differences between them, in philosophy and practice. And there is some tangible value to be found in most, if not all, of them.

For example, there is scientifically proven value to meditation, which comes from religious tradition. There are numerous studies that demonstrate the neurological benefits of prayer. There is value in the community that grows out of many religious faiths. There is value in the inspiration that many receive from their religions that keeps them striving in life and keeps them steadfast in difficult times. There is value in the humanitarian and charity work that most faiths participate in and encourage, and there is value in the ethical codes that most faiths offer. I also maintain that there is definable value in accepting, honoring, and bowing in humility before that which we do not understand, may never understand and that is greater than us.

Its well known that many of the world's greatest scientists were spiritual and saw the value in spiritual belief. Just as Einstein said that we exist in a library of books written by someone else, Max Planck, the founder of modern quantum theory, stated that science is able to measure the 'symbols' of the universe -- ie its physical structure, its laws, and its mechanics -- but that there is a greater spirit beyond the symbols that is immeasurable. He specifically called out atheists for placing too great an emphasis on the symbols and not on the spirit behind the symbols.

Planck regarded the scientist as a man of imagination and faith, 'faith' being akin to "having a working hypothesis."

Which leads us to last point, which is the sticking point. The matter of proof.

When and where, in the history of science, do our greatest scientists tell us that one should live their lives believing only in that which can be proven? Who of them has said that it is more 'intelligent' to accept nothing in life but modern western scientific proof?

The scientific method, of course, is the accepted way to validate theorems and forward scientific understanding. It is the mechanism through which scientific progress takes place. It allows us all the great advances of science and allows us a better understanding of the mechanics of our universe. But it is not necessarily meant to be a worldview in and of itself. The idea that if science hasn't proven it then it doesn't exist or it isn't worth believing in would be considered insufferably narrow-minded to most of the great scientists of history. If Einstein, or Bohr, or Planck, or Schroedinger were to witness the "Oh Yeah, Well Prove It!" attitude of many modern atheists, they would be the first to take them to school.

Historically, the people who cling to proof as an absolute barometer of truth and only accept the "proven" theorems of the day are inevitably the ones to be proven wrong when science validates the hunches, inspirations, and intuition of its forward thinkers. It is the same type of narrow-minded thinking that came from those who laughed at the notion that the world is round and who scoffed at the monk who posited that the universe was created in a 'big bang.' What is lost in this mindset is perspective on the history of human understanding and innovation that lives outside of -- and predates -- western science, the recognition of the value of human ways of knowing that exist outside of scientific method -- ie intuition and imagination, and a little humble perspective on the relatively minute place of western science in the vast history of this universe and of humankind.

The trails of scientific understanding are blazed by those of great imagination. Newton's gospel -- the laws of physics which bear his name -- were intuited first, proven later. John Maynard Keynes said: "Newton owed his success to his muscles of intuition. Newton's powers of intuition were the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted." Freidrich Kekulé, the famed chemist, discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule in a dream in which he was visited by the image of snake biting its own tail. Srinavasa Ramanujan, the brilliant Indian mathematician who redefined mathematical analysis, number theory, and continued fractions, claimed he received his formulas through direct revelation from the goddess Namagiri. Einstein wrote that "the intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it Intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don't know how or why".

For those of us who have made a lifetime of spiritual study, intuition tells us that there is a reason Erwin Schroedinger came to the conclusion that the writings of early Hindu mystics on the 'one self' and the Universal Mind were spot on. Intuition tells us that there is something to the 'Great Mystery' of the Lakota faith. There is a reason that Hindu mystics after studying, debating, and meditating over hundreds and hundreds of years came to conclusions about the nature of the universe that have been substantiated by modern physics. There is a reason the Sanskrit language has literally dozens of words that describe states of mental and spiritual cognition, intuition, and revelation, most of which are lost on our modern world. There is a reason that our greatest scientists from Planck to Schroedinger to Bohr to Einstein believed in a greater mystery or spirit beyond the provable mechanics of the physical universe.

Thomas Samuel Kuhn posited that scientific advancement happens in sudden paradigm shifts and that initial hypotheses inevitably weather periods of anomalies and doubt until ultimately being proven. The trajectory of science over the past few centuries has drawn us undeniably into the realm of mysticism and is leading us towards fundamental shifts in how we view consciousness. This is not to say -- as many pseudo-scientists have tried to -- that there is a one-one relationship between mysticism and physics. There isn't. But if someone had told the Oh Yeah Well Prove It crowd two centuries ago that everything in the universe is composed of the same essential matter, and that that matter is pure energy, and that that energy is in a constant state of flux and vibration, they would have cried heresy -- yet the Shaivites of Kashmir posited this in exact detail over a thousand years ago. If someone had told them that the fundamental building block of the universe plays what can only be called a cosmic joke on its observer by only appearing when it is observed and instead actually 'existing' only as probability, they -- in all probability -- would have been locked up.

I can imagine a conversation between a member of the Oh Yeah Well Prove It crowd and a Shaiva sadhu. The sadhu explains that, according to his worldview -- which is startlingly similar to Schroedinger's writings on 'One mind' -- there is one universal consciousness that we are all integrally part of, and that, in Schroedinger's words "Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown. The plurality of beings is mere appearance; in reality they are all only aspects of the one being." The skeptic tells the sadhu flat out that his view is patently false because it hasn't been "proven", and then goes on to elaborate that in his world -- aka the word of modern western science -- it is possible for a cat in a box to be both dead and alive at the same time, objects can be two places at once, and time can in certain cases move backwards.

Who, in this scenario is "right?" Or, in the words of Werner Van Braun: "What strange rationale makes some physicists accept the inconceivable electron as real, while refusing to accept the reality of a Designer on the grounds that they cannot conceive of one?"

Scientific discovery -- especially at the sub-atomic level -- is bordering on the downright wacky, and yet somehow the skeptics of belief maintain that everything science proves is justified because... well, because scientists find proof for it, and everything that humans believed prior to modern science is invalid because modern science wasn't involved. Never mind that scientific "proof" changes every few years, that new theories replace old ones on a perennial basis, and that almost everything scientists believed about the history of the universe 200 years ago is now considered wrong. There is tremendous knowledge that has come out of spiritual tradition. And in many traditions, the role of science and spirituality -- that of discovery of the workings of the universe, was one and the same.

Fundamentally, there are other ways of knowing the universe than through empirical science. One can live in wonder -- as Carl Sagan said -- at the amazing findings of science and astronomy and still believe in and draw strength from that which we cannot immediately touch and feel.

Kuhn posited, as did Heisenberg, that science is never removed from subjectivity. At the end of the day, every system we have created for measuring our universe is colored by our perception, and even directly effected by it. Science is no exception. Objectively, we simply have no idea what exists beyond our limited sight. Just as paramecia cannot conceive of us, so we cannot conceive of what may exist in this infinitely vast and infinitely old universe. We have difficulty grasping four dimensions, yet physics tells us there may be ten, or thirteen, or even infinite dimensions. As many little tests and experiments as we run, we fundamentally do not know because we are operating within the confines of our very limited perception. Within this, to ridicule the existence of a greater mystery says more about the narrow-mindedness of the ridiculer than it does about the intelligence of the ridiculed.

Atheists I have received comments from have often spoken of the hubris of thinking the soul goes on forever (a concept which most eastern religions do not in fact believe as such). Is not the greatest hubris of all to believe that in all the vastness of this universe, the guys in lab coats on the third speck from the sun have a lock on the measurement of truth? Van Braun, the foremost rocket scientist of the 20th century whose genius made the US space program and the Apollo moon landing possible, was once quoted as saying: "My experiences with science led me to God. They challenge science to prove the existence of God. But must we really light a candle to see the sun?"

I do not write this to try to prove to the non-believer that some form of divinity exists or to try to convince them not to be atheists. I write it simply to encourage the free thinkers out there to drop some of the recently conceived notions about those who believe and allow for a little breathing room. Imagination, intuition, mysticism, meditation, and spiritual revelation are intrinsic to human beings, and through history have shed light on real and measurable truths. We do not live in a lab; we live in a cosmos that is a living breathing mythology. If you do not embrace the faiths and traditions that have been woven out of wonder at this cosmos, at the very least recognize that there is value in those traditions. And drop the burden of proof.

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